It’s hard to believe that it’s my third visit to Dawson City — deep in The Yukon territory of Canada. One of my favorite descriptions of Dawson City was from a GQ article that describes the gold rush town as “sort of the Marfa of Canada — if Marfa were even more isolated and even more weird.” As someone who has visited the wacky world of Marfa, Texas, I can assure you that it’s a rare accomplishment to win in the remoteness and wacky departments!
There is no quick journey here from almost anywhere — particularly Los Angeles — with a layover in Vancouver and a required overnight in Whitehorse, the largest city in the Yukon (with a population hovering around 25,000 people). From there, you’ll board a tiny prop plane that looks more like a toy. So yes, this would not be the time to lie about your weight when asked during the boarding process!
Whenever I return back to LA from a trip to Dawson, I have no shortage of stories. I’m sure most people think I’m making this stuff up… as I tell them about the bar that serves a shot with a severed human toe, the honky tonk saloons and how bear spray is just as common as suntan lotion when taking a hike. Yeah, my fellow glammed-up Runyon Canyon hikers with Chihuahuas at tow would never survive!
Dawson City was once the center of the Klondike gold rush and quickly grew to a thriving city with 40,000 people in 1896 shortly after first finding gold in the hills. By 1899, the gold rush had ended and the town’s population plummeted. Apparently, they gave up after things didn’t quite, umm, pan out (like what I did there?).
Every summer, tourists from around the world flock to Dawson like the gold rushers back in its heyday. This is mostly due to the preservation and marketing effort by Parks Canada (a national park organization). Dawson today feels like a Hollywood set. And it’s all a little surreal — especially when you mix in a steady stream of summer senior citizen tourists on a side trip from their Alaskan cruise lines or the adventurous outdoorsy traveler in search of an adventure.
Dawson City is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Below are just some of the things to check out that seem completely normal when you’re in The Yukon including a shot with a severed human toe.
Test Your Stomach by Trying a Shot with a Real Human Toe
While the gold rush may be Dawson City’s claim to fame, you’ll soon realize that the nightlife scene today is pretty legendary. If anyone has been to Dawson, they’ll definitely bring up its famed “Sourtoe Cocktail,” a shot where they drop in a real human toe. And in case you’re wondering, no I haven’t done the shot. After all, my husband threatened he’d never come close to me again if I did! But I’ve seen plenty of others do it. Before it’s bottoms up, the server will tell you, “Drink it fast, drink it slow, your lips have got to touch the toe.” Ugh, think of all those lips that have touched that toe — if a black severed toe isn’t disgusting enough!
On this latest visit, a long-haired man from New Zealand did the shot but literally licked the toe with his tongue before they called me next. Yeah, not gonna happen! But this legendary shot, served at the bar at The Downtown Hotel, has been a long tradition in town. But it isn’t just one toe doing all the work. According to the bartender, they have about 7 toes at any given time. Also, there is a list of people who have already decided to donate their toes after they’re dead. Talk about a weird way to live on!
Obviously there are a number of reasons NOT to swallow a toe, but that’s exactly what happened in 2013 when some ‘unique character’ purposely slammed it back. He threw down the $500 fine in cash and fled the scene before the locals could get to him. Since that incident, the fine for swallowing a toe has been raised to $2,500. So no funny business or you’ll be paying up!
It’s $5 a shot, which is Yukon Jack and a side of decomposing flesh. The worst part though (if it wasn’t bad enough?) — the toe captain will squeeze the last bit of juice from it for one final, toe-infused shot. Yeah, and people pay for this. Well, at least you’ll get a certificate proving that you’ve done the nasty deed. And it also includes the total number of people who’ve kissed that same disgusting toe before you. Now there’s something to show the grandkids!
Gamble While you Watch a Can Can Show
Dawson City’s world famous gambling hall is named after bona fide dance hall queen Diamond Tooth Gertie. Admission is $12, and there are three different shows per night, May through September. I recommend booking early since this place can get very busy when the cruise buses roll in. The popular re-creation of an 1898 saloon is complete with small-time gambling, a honky-tonk piano and dancing girls.
During the Gold Rush of 1898, the story goes that Gertie wedged a sparkling diamond between her two front teeth. But any discomfort really didn’t matter since this girl was making money with her show.
Today visitors can enjoy a drink while playing blackjack, roulette, Texas hold’em poker and an array of slot machines as Gertie and ‘her girls’ perform their 1-hour dance routine. The midnight shows are positioned as the more risqué version — but let’s face it, this is your 80-year-old grandma kind of dirty.
Hit the Motherlode While Panning for Gold
If you’ve come this far, you need to take a chance to find some gold. After all, how often can you try your luck searching for treasure in the original Yukon gold country? You should make one of your very first stops to visit Bonanza Creek. It’s a short drive from town — taking you on a windy and dusty road that leads out to the active claim. This is the very spot that triggered the Klondike gold rush when a tiny fleck was found.
The National Park Service has preserved and interpreted a number of old prospecting sites; however, most of the land along Bonanza Creek is owned privately, so don’t trespass. Discovery Claim, just up the road, is the spot where legendary miners George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie found the gold that unleashed the Klondike stampede in 1896. Keep following Bonanza Creek, and you’ll find Dredge no. 4, the largest wooden-hulled gold dredges ever used in North America. It’s open June through early to mid-September daily at 9 am with tours ($5 USD) offered hourly until 4 pm.
Hang with the Locals at The Pit (and Pray the Place Doesn’t Collapse!)
When all things are closed in Dawson City, there is a good chance The Pit will still be open. Located inside the bright pink Westminster Hotel, you’ll have a hard time missing it. And as the main local watering hole in town, it’s about as divey as you might expect. Yep, The Pit lives up to its name!
Rumor around town is that The Pit must stay open 365 days a year, otherwise, inspectors will come in and shut the place down. Sure, it looks like a fire hazard (and probably is). But it makes a fun night out where local hipsters, mountain men and women come in to dance, listen to local bands or blast 1980s Guns N’ Roses on the old-time jukebox.
The place opens up early — I’m talking 9 AM — and there are regulars who show up that early. There are some raunchy murals on the walls also worth a look (of Canadian Mounties non-the-less). But your best bet is to come here at night.
Just watch your step inside as the floors are ripped up, crooked and it’s sort of like navigating inside a fun house. They don’t call it The Pit for nothing. If you enjoy weird, local bars with all kinds of characters, don’t miss this one.
WHERE TO STAY
The Westmark Dawson caters very much to the Alaskan cruise crowd in the summer, but despite the heavy foot traffic, it’s a nice place to base yourself. Each room comes with a refrigerator and TV. One drawback is the lack of wifi inside the rooms. Unfortunately, that’s a big problem for most of The Yukon though.
There is also central air conditioning and heating in each of the rooms. While it isn’t a fancy place, I still really like it compared to a few of the other hotels in town because it is very quiet. There is a bar at the Westmark, but it doesn’t get rowdy like the one at the Downtown Hotel (with the Sourtoe Cocktail or the Westminster with The Pit that blasts late into the evening). Rates run around $150 a night. But like any hotel in Dawson City, it books up very quickly. I recommend booking at least 2-3 months in advance especially if traveling in the peak summer season (which picks up as early as May and goes through September).
WHERE TO EAT:
Ask a local where to eat, and chances are they’ll recommend Klondike Kate’s on the edge of town. The restaurant was named for a famous and ‘friendly’ dancer dubbed ‘Klondike Kate,’ or ‘Queen of the Gold Rush’ in Dawson at the turn of the 20th century.
Sure, the service can be slow (at least on the 3 occasions that I’ve visited). But the food is pretty tasty and there are a lot of fun local dishes (reindeer sausage or smoked char liver anyone?). I came here with a group and got a table outside on the back patio, where even in the summer, it can get a little chilly. They also offer an extensive drink menu and wines by the bottle or glass.
WHERE TO CHILL OUT
Believe it or not, there is an amazing coffee shop in the heart of Dawson called Alchemy Cafe. In addition to serving some great coffee, they have a wide range of vegan meals and snacks. I typically visit this spot for breakfast whenever I’m in town and need functioning wifi.
I also love their “magic desserts” which they proudly declare are SOMETIMES sugar-free, often gluten-free and raw but always organic as possible. Well, they’re at least not overselling it! But whatever, I still tell myself that it’s healthy (as I shove down a slice of chocolate cake).
There you have it! You are all set for your big gold mining adventure. But just remember if visiting in the summer, the sun doesn’t ever go down (or if it does, very briefly). Before you know it, you’ll be out until 2 AM and realize you should get to sleep. So bring some eye shades — or you can do what the locals do, and keep on going. See you at The Pit!